A nonprofit group that objects to a 2001 Government Accountability Office report on Title IX, the 1972 law that bars gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds, has decided to sue the messenger.
The report, "Intercollegiate Athletics: Four-Year Colleges' Experiences Adding and Discontinuing Teams," found that the number of men's and women's sports teams both increased from 1981 to 1999, although the rise in men's teams was smaller. The report was a blow to critics who argued that enforcement of Title IX had encouraged colleges and universities to cut men's programs to comply with the law.
In a lawsuit filed in 2003 and amended last month in U.S. District Court, the College Sports Council says the GAO's methodology was flawed; the report erroneously concluded that the number of collegiate men's teams went up; and the findings have "misled" Congress, the Education Department and courts in their oversight and enforcement of the law.
"They've been fully aware of the flaws in their report for over a year, [and] they haven't acted on it," said Eric Pearson, executive director of the group, a coalition of coaches, parents and athletes that believes the way Title IX has been enforced has hurt men's athletics.
Comptroller General David M. Walker said the suit "lacks merit" and represents a fundamental misreading of how the GAO works as a watchdog agency for Congress.
"There are numerous checks and balances in order to help assure that our work is professional, objective, fact-based, nonpartisan and, hopefully, fair and balanced," Walker said in an interview.
At Congress's request, the GAO prepares hundreds of reports on scores of subjects each year, on issues such as rural housing programs, defense spending, federal tax policy and civil service rules. Lawmakers quote from them, news organizations build stories around them and bureaucrats tweak their agency operations based on their recommendations.
But this is the first time the GAO has been sued over the contents of a report, Walker said.
"In America, anybody can sue anybody about anything," he said.
The sports council was part of a lawsuit filed in 2002 by the National Wrestling Coaches Association against the Education Department challenging the three-part test the government has used since 1979 to determine whether a college's athletics program complies with Title IX. Under the guideline, colleges and universities can show compliance in three ways: by having male and female athletes roughly proportionate to the numbers of men and women in their undergraduate student bodies; by demonstrating a history of adding sports opportunities for women; or by proving that they are meeting the interests of their female students.
The plaintiffs argued that such a test created a discriminatory quota system that has led schools to reduce their athletic programs for men. A federal district judge dismissed the suit in 2003 after finding that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue, a ruling upheld last year by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The appeals court also ruled that the groups had failed to prove their contention that colleges had reduced sports programs for men because of the federal policy.
The groups filed a petition last week seeking a Supreme Court review, said Lawrence J. Joseph, the attorney for the sports council in that case and in the GAO suit.
In the GAO suit, the sports council says the agency contributed to the legal setback, contending that "material misstatements [in the GAO report] misled the panel majority into believing that men's teams increased during the affected period, which affected the panel majority's analysis of the standing inquiry."
The council says the GAO recorded an increase of 36 men's teams in its survey group mainly because it examined 134 more schools in 1999, the last year of the study, than in 1981, the first year.
The "alleged increase in fact is a significant decrease, masked by the 134 schools moving into the survey population," the suit said.
Walker defended the accuracy of the report.
"We have not had any complaints from the Hill about what we did since our report has been issued," he said.